HC Deb 04 May 1965 vol 711 cc1186-92

As amended (in the Standing Committee), considered.

7.25 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Robert Mellish)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

This short Bill makes a number of amendments to the special Parliamentary procedure for Ministerial Orders which was devised at the end of the last war and embodied in the Statutory Orders (Special Procedure) Act 1945.

There are more than 40 public Acts and many local Acts of Parliament under which Ministers have power to make Orders subject to the special procedure. It has, therefore, been used a great deal and has proved its usefulness. It gives Parliament the opportunity, if Members so wish, of bringing into debate on the Floor of the House, Ministerial Orders which are executive in character and, for the most part, local and detailed in application. It also provides machinery whereby those who are affected by an Order—whether local authorities or private individuals—may make their objections known to Parliament.

The Bill leaves the essential features of the special procedure untouched, but it makes four amendments which are generally agreed to be improvements. I will refer to these as briefly as possible. When an Order is before the House, the 1945 Act provides a period of 14 days during which persons affected may present petitions against the Order and a further period of 14 days during which Members may move its annulment. The Bill extends each of these periods to 21 days, thus giving more time to prospective petitioners and to Members of both Houses.

Under the 1945 Act, a petition was required to disclose what the Act called a substantial ground of objection to the order". The Bill removes that requirement which is not imposed on other types of petition to Parliament. The Chairman of Ways and Means in this House, and the Chairman of Committees in the House of Lords have a joint responsibility for examining petitions: they see no reason for this requirement and would prefer to be without it.

The third amendment, in Clause 1(4), is rather more complicated. It allows the two Chairmen a discretion to refuse to accept any petition—or part of a petition—which would widen the scope of the Order. I must explain the reason for this. Before an Order comes to Parliament, there are preliminary proceedings—notices, advertisements, a period of time for objections, and—in most cases where there are objections—a public inquiry.

These proceedings safeguard the interests of all persons affected by an Order. When they have been completed, the Minister responsible for the Order cannot alter it in a way which would make it more onerous, or applicable to other people who have not had the benefit of the safeguards in the preliminary proceedings. Nobody should be free to amend an Order in this way and it was never intended that a petitioner should be able to do so. The Chairman of Ways and Means welcomes the discretion which this amendment gives him.

Finally, I come to the most important of these amendments. Under the 1945 Act, a petition praying for particular amendments to the Order is considered by a Joint Committee, but a petition which objects to the Order generally—a "petition of general objection"—is referred to a Joint Committee only if either House so orders. Clause 1(5) provides that a petition of objection will be referred to a Joint Committee unless either House resolves otherwise.

In other words, the bias in future will be towards allowing a petition of objection to go to a Joint Committee. If the responsible Minister, or other Members of either House, consider that a particular petition of objection raises matters which ought to be brought into debate on the Floor, that can be arranged.

This Bill is not a party issue. The review of special Parliamentary procedure which led to the Bill was carried out under the previous Government. In the past, there have sometimes been differences of opinion about various aspects of the special procedure; but they have never split on party lines. Our only concern here has been to make improvements to one of the more complicated procedures of Parliament in order to give Members of both Houses, and private objectors, a little more time to consider Orders and a little more room to manœuvre. In doing this, we have tried to keep the special procedure as speedy and as efficient as possible, while leaving with Ministers the ultimate responsibility for their own executive actions and policies.

I should like to pay to the hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) the tribute which I paid to him upstairs in Committee. His contribution to debate on the Bill has been extremely valuable. The party opposite is indebted to him for the work which he has done in matters of this kind, and the Government have appreciated it. The hon. Member has helped to get the Bill through. It is a small, rather complicated but useful Bill, and I commend it to the House.

7.30 p.m.

Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government has explained the Bill to the House. I give him his full title because he has taken on a job which is not really his to do, but if I may say so, and congratulate him in so doing, he has done it with good humour and good grace, explaining very fully what the Bill is about.

This special Parliamentary procedure, which the Bill tidies up, can be useful to the House, but it can also be dangerous, depending on how it is used by the Government of the day. In supporting the Bill, I have assumed that the amendments which the Bill makes to the special procedure will be properly used by the present Government, and I hope that I have not been too naive, too green or too innocent in so doing. I am not so sure, thinking back over the past six months, that I was right to assume that the present Government might not wish to use this procedure for political purposes. I hope that they will not use the Bill for such purposes, because we are now using the special procedure for very important matters which come before the House.

Clause 1(2) provides that there shall be 21 days for a petition against an Order, that is 21 days after the Order has been laid before the House. The period is 21 days and no more. The subsection provides also that there shall be 21 days for a Member of the House to put down a Motion to annul an Order under the special procedure, that is, 21 days after a report from the Chairman. Again, it is 21 days and no more. This question was raised in Committee, and the period in the Bill as it now comes before us is a fixed one of 21 days.

There is a point here which, perhaps, I ought to have cleared up before. Is it 21 days or 21 sitting days of the House? I am not quite sure, as the Bill is worded. But, in any case, whether it be sitting days of the House or just 21 days, the time limit is most important because it is possible for a Prayer against an Order to be squeezed out by Government business.

Under the present Act, the period is 14 days, and it is now proposed to extend it to 21 days, but the ordinary Statutory Instrument has 40 sitting days of the House as the period in which a Prayer can be tabled against it. If any Government play tricks with Government business, squeezing out private Members' Prayers, some of the most important matters with which these Orders deal may be effectively guillotined and never come before the House.

I speak of important matters because, particularly during the last three years, the special Parliamentary procedure has been used for matters involving tens of millions of pounds coming before the House on a simple Order. I go back to the Pipe-lines Act, 1962, under which an Order might involve vast sums of money for the laying of pipelines. Under the Water Resources Act, Orders altering river authority areas, transferring functions or property from other authorities, and so on, can involve millions of pounds, and the time within which hon. and right hon. Members have to consider such an Order is the period of 21 days after the Chairman has reported, as fixed by Clause 1(2). The Harbours Act, 1964, applied the special Parliamentary procedure to harbour revision orders, harbour empowerment orders and harbour reorganisation schemes.

To show the magnitude of the matters involved, I refer, as I did in Committee, to a scheme for the extension of the Liverpool Docks, into my constituency. This is a £65 million scheme to construct 32 deep-water berths, taking up a large residential area in my constituency, and it is, perhaps, the biggest scheme for the development of docks which has ever been undertaken not only in this country but in the world. It will come before the House on a special Parliamentary procedure Order, and hon. Members will have 21 days from the date of the report to decide whether to pray against it and raise a debate upon it.

The House has just been dealing with a similar Measure, the Gas Bill, under which storage authorisation orders will be subject to the special procedure. The next Bill on the Order Paper, the Airports Authority Bill, is another example. The powers exercised in respect of airports for civilian aviation are subject to special procedure Orders when, for example, roads are to be closed or land is to be acquired for aerodromes. We shall see this special procedure used more and more, and the House will have to work not only under the procedure as laid down in the 1946 Act but under the amendments to it made by the present Bill.

Over the past three years in particular, we have used this procedure more and more for more and more important matters. I wonder whether the special Parliamentary procedure is to be used under the Steel Bill which is to come before the House. Is this the reason for tidying up the procedure?

Mr. Mellish

Well, really!

Mr. Page

Yes; we are told in the White Paper that the Steel Bill will contain provisions enabling the Minister of Power, in certain circumstances, to bring into public ownership a company which does not become publicly owned by the operation of the Bill itself, that company not being included in the 14. Is the special procedure to be used for bringing companies other than the 14 into nationalisation?

Mr. Mellish

The hon. Gentleman really must not try to get away with the idea that, somehow, all the virtues are on his side of the House and all the evils are on this side. The first thing that his own party did when returning to power was to amend certain of the procedures of the House. He will remember that the time for Prayers was altered so as to make certain that the Government could get their business through. His own Government ensured that Government business had priority. The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that this Bill received the agreement of the Chairman of Ways and Means and others, and he himself has supported it until this moment. He is now seeing mischief in it which could not possibly exist.

Mr. Page

I am very glad that the hon. Gentleman is well informed on the procedure governing Prayers and about the alteration which was made to restrict debate on Prayers to the period between ten o'clock and half-past eleven. This is the very point to which I was coming.

We must be assured that the 21 days provided for will be effective. Any Prayer against a special procedure Order has to be brought within that period as provided by the Bill, and, in addition, it must be brought during a certain time of the evening, that is, between 10 and 11.30 p.m.

Mr. Mellish

Which the hon. Gentleman's Government brought in.

Mr. Page

Indeed, yes. In a few weeks, the Government may become pressed for time and may be a little desperate about it. I want to ensure that, if any of these special procedure Orders do come forward, they will not be squeezed out by Government business. I ask the hon. Gentleman, therefore, if he may have leave of the House to speak again, to give a specific undertaking that the Government will always find time for Prayers against special procedure Orders especially when they involve such vast schemes and enormous sums of money as those which I have mentioned. This is a really important matter.

The hon. Gentleman will recall, when what I call the 11.30 rule was introduced, Sir Harry Crookshank, as he then was, gave an undertaking on behalf of the Government at that time that they would always find time for Prayers of this sort. Do this Government stand by that undertaking? Since it was given, more and more important matters have come before the House on this type of Order. I ask the hon. Gentleman to repeat that firm assurance which was given by the previous Government some years ago, that Prayers will not be squeezed out by Government business. On this occasion, when we are tidying up the special procedure, at a time when the special procedure is being used more and more and there is a new Government in office, the undertaking ought to be repeated, and I ask the hon. Gentleman to give the House an assurance on the matter.

7.10 p.m.

Mr. Mellish

By leave of the House, may I speak again? The hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) asks me for certain assurances. Let me assure him—if he does not know already—that the Labour Government is the Government of a party of social democrats. We understand what democracy is all about. I cannot spell out to him the exact way in which future events will unfold, but, if he wishes to ask a question of that kind, he might put it to my right hon. Friend the Patronage Secretary.

The hon. Gentleman asks me for an assurance. Perhaps I might ask him for one. May we be assured that we shall have no nonsense from his side of the House as regards filibustering?

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.

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